40/100: What's Your Weakness?

I have been to many interviews where the dreaded question - what's your greatest weakness (or variations thereof) - came up. This was always a strange, conversation stopping, awkward moment. As an interviewee, this is a moment of judging the mood: Should I be honest or not? I have blown my chances before by trying to be honest. On the other hand, it is that moment when one can look arrogant or plain dumb. I have no weaknesses - whichever way you say it - proves that you are either lying, or completely self-oblivious.

For the interviewer, this is an important question. That question establishes power equations in an interview: The candidate can not turn around and say, what's yours? It is the interviewee who has to disclose his weaknesses, he is obligated to have a sense of waekness because he is sitting at the other side of the table.

There are some 'strategies' for handling this question, indeed. Some good advice came from this month's Harvard Business Review, which suggested that the candidate should talk about something which is external, which s/he has no control over.

In my infinite witness of trying, I discovered that somewhat - to project weakness as an inverted strength. Something like, my pet line once I learned the trick: My greatest weakness is that I went to school in Pre-Liberalization India and never prepared for a 'global' career, because in small town India those days, there was nothing as such. This is indeed true, and this is a great weakness in me. I have gone to a local school, never learned English much, never learned to dress properly, never met someone outside my locality and grew up prepared to be a small town clerk. Indeed, the point of saying this in an interview is to say that I have tried to overcome this weakness later in life (and that sitting in that interview itself is part of my efforts).

But, while the point is usually made, it conceals the point. This indeed is my greatest weakness, and however much I try to externalize it and project that I have no control, that's not particularly true. What did happen is that this lack of preparation remained with me and grew up to be a sort of back-of-the-mind complex. This is possibly called the 'impostor syndrome' - I always feel out of place, and often, even if I achieve something, I feel this is plain chance or luck and I have actually played no role. In summary, I have let that point about schooling and lack of smartness hang over my head all the time.

At this time, when I am trying to break free from the past and to do things what I wanted to do, it is important for me to accept this weakness in its face value and reconcile with this, if possible. The problem of 'impostor syndrome' is that one remains defensive and forever shackled in the past, and even when future meets the person half way down the road, he passes it off as an illusion. I can't deny that happened to me before: I only realized that once the moment has passed.

For example, the business I started in 1999, which was just right on time, full of new ideas. I couldn't sustain it because I did bad deals to secure the money needed, and the investors sucked off all the profits the moment the company started making any money. The reason I did bad deals is because I did not feel confident to propose a better deal. When I was negotiating the deals, it did not matter to me what value I am bringing in to table: I was more concerned thinking about my provincial background and that of my rich and famous investor, a smart, good-looking rich man who graduated from Babson College.

The problem of such bad deals is that it quickly assumes a life of its own and my sense of limitation quickly compounded into a sure road to failure. I tried to make it up by being heroic - doing all sorts of sacrifices which stretched me to an extreme - but this actually pushed me down to the point where I had to give up, sell off and go away.

Thinking through, this is possibly one lesson I should have taken, but did not, as I was too concerned about how to answer the interview questions (which came up in many other occasions since) than to understand the weakness. And, seek closure, if I may say. Unless I could really believe that I am not what my past mandates me to be, but what I define as my future, I shall never get out of this cage. I shall always be cowered in an interview, trying to judge the mood, working out a smart-sounding answer which shows my vulnerability in a controlled sequence.

If and when I am asked this question next time, therefore, my answer will be counter-strategic: My weakness used to be to have this sense of limitation, but I have decided to grow up. This may not get me a job, but then, I am not looking for one.


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